Runner Up

By Gayle Beveridge

Gayle says: I am Aussie who loves to write. My work has appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing, Vegemite Whiskers and Mosaic. Writing is my radiant red-sky sunset, it is spring flowers, bird song and a long walk in the bush.

Eight is the number of hours it takes to drive from Melbourne to Adelaide. Maybe a little more with toilet stops and baby changes. Mostly Rachel drives to the local shops or the health centre; nowhere else. Hers is an old car, with unmatched panels, recap tyres and something that rattles at even the smallest of bumps. This afternoon Rachel bought a GPS, stuck it on the windscreen and plugged it into the cigarette lighter. She follows the instructions; she’s good at that. 

It’s mid-afternoon and the traffic is moving steadily across the Westgate Bridge. Rachel misses the views at the crest, more than fifteen storeys above the river. Hands on the wheel. Eyes to the road. That was Dad’s mantra when he taught her to drive. Was that already nine years ago?

Seven hours to go. The city is behind her now, the traffic less claustrophobic. Noah is still asleep in his capsule as they skirt past Bacchus Marsh on the freeway. When Rachel was little, Dad took the family there for days out. Fresh fruit from the roadside stalls was always a treat. Apples with juice running sticky through their fingers. Strawberries as red as a movie-star’s lipstick. They would eat it in the shade of the Avenue of Honour trees. Dad liked to read the names from the century-old plaques on the Dutch elms, each planted in 1918 for a soldier fallen in the Great War. The town was more rural then, not the row upon row of boxy houses that line the hillsides today.

Six is how old Rachel was when her family moved from Beaufort to Melbourne. Her best friend Ashley lived next door. They hugged each other, refusing to let go, even when it was time to leave. Dad got them apart for a photo, one Rachel still keeps; two little girls with tear-stained faces. Rachel cried as he carried her to the car. “Don’t cry baby,” he’d said. “You’re breaking my heart. I’ll bring you back for a holiday.” And he had, for eleven straight years. The highway streetscape has changed little; verandahs shade the shopfronts as they have done for more than a century, the four-sided clock atop the Beaufort Band Rotunda still marks the time. She smiles as they pass through her home town; Dad’s too.

Noah has slept well but with nearly five hours to go, he wakes and puffs soft whines into the air. Rachel pulls into a way-side stop and takes him from the car. He has balled his tiny hands into fists and pressed his lips tightly together. She will change his nappy soon, when he finishes pooping. She sits at a picnic table with Noah on her knee, kisses his little red forehead and laughs as the skin around his eyebrows turns white from his effort. Dad would laugh at this too. Rachel is sure of that. Noah is three months old, and Dad has yet to meet him in person. 

Noah needs feeding and so does Rachel. She pushes on into Horsham and is relieved when she spies the golden arches of a McDonalds restaurant. While she feeds Noah, Rachel snacks on a Filet-o-Fish and fries and gulps down a much-needed coffee. It’s dinnertime. The queues at the counter stretch past their table. Noah is gurgling-happy, enchanting children and drawings smiles from the mum and dads. He is winning hearts and content with it, but they must get petrol and move on.

The sun is low in the sky by the time they reach Nhill. They are halfway, four hours on the road and another four to go. Rachel has not driven this far, or for this long, before. Dad has a rule. He will not drive over two hours without a break and four hours is enough in any day. To Dad it’s about the holiday, not the travel. Rachel remembers all those I Spy games of years ago. Dad was seriously good at it and often stumped her and Mum. One trip, he made them crazy. “I spy with my little eye,” he had said, “something beginning with S.” They tried so hard to guess. The street, the sky, the steering wheel, the speedo. No, none of those. A shoulder, a smile. Not them. His shirt, their shoes, his socks. Nope. Mum’s slacks, Rachel’s shorts. No. They surrendered in the end. It was his shoelace! He laughed so much he gave himself the hiccups. 

By eight o’clock Rachel is tiring. Noah is quiet, he’s a good baby, always has been. The car has rattled its way along, offering not one sputter of complaint. It will be dark soon. With the setting sun, a renewed sense of urgency overwhelms Rachel. Jarrod is away on business and he will expect her to ring. 

On the road into Kaniva, on a highway flanked by grass, spike-dry and golden, she thinks about stopping, but in just minutes, the town is behind them. They are on the open road again where cars are now few and trucks roar past. A railway runs to their left, a line of iron and stones through arid paddocks punctuated only by the occasional lonely gum tree. Rachel presses on for another half hour, searching for a safe place to stop. Her arms ache. Gripping the steering wheel for five hours with only a short rest is taking its toll. The tension of the day is taking its toll too. The sun has dipped below the horizon, but its warmth still lingers. Rachel steps out into the dark and rings Jarrod. 

“You’re a bit late tonight,” he says. “Is Noah playing up?”

“Sorry, time got away from me.”

He tells her about his day. The parking at the airport, the flight, the hectic meetings, the office politics, the motel he doesn’t like. They chat for near on a half hour. Rachel is eager to get going. She does not tell Jarrod where they are. She wakes Noah and feeds him. If he sleeps from here on, they won’t need to stop again. Just three more hours.

By the time they reach Coonalpyn, Rachel has finally realised how to turn the headlights to high beam. She slows as they near the glow of the town and pulls over beside towering grain silos painted with sweet, young children. Rachel flexes her fingers and rubs her eyes. It’s past ten o’clock, and she has been up since six this morning. She checks her mobile. No messages. Is that good news … or bad? 

Outside, alone with the night, Rachel breathes deeply, paces and stretches. Noah is awake and playing with his foot. He doesn’t need changing, so she leaves him in his capsule. “You can do this,” she says, treading dusty steps the length of the silos, shaking drowsiness from her shoulders. It’s what Dad would say if he were here. Rachel had grown up hearing it —You can do this baby, the sky’s the limit. She has missed him this last year and a half since he and Mum have been away. She gets back in the car. These last two hours will be the most difficult of the drive.

Rachel turns the air conditioner to cool and tilts the vent to her face. A fighter in the ring with weariness, she looks too often at the GPS, counts too often as only minutes pass. At Tailem Bend a road house is a beacon of light, drawing truckers like flies to a lamp. At Murray Bridge they cross a river hidden in the shadows of the night. The GPS shows one hour and five minutes to go. In that hour, Rachel must drive through the steep and winding Adelaide Hills, and on into the city. She turns up the volume on the GPS.

It’s after midnight when Rachel arrives at the Royal Adelaide Hospital with Noah, and tells them she has driven from Melbourne. No one questions the time. 

It’s nine hours since they left home. 

Eleven hours since the phone call. 

Fifteen hours since a passing truck clipped Mum and Dad’s caravan, flipping it and rolling their car.

Dad is in the Intensive Care Unit. This morning they told Rachel to prepare for the worst. Tonight, there is hope. Mum has a broken leg. She’s awake when Rachel gets to the ward.

“Hello, Mum.” Rachel bends to kiss a scraped and bruised cheek.

“Oh, Rachel. Your dad?”

“He’s stable now, Mum. He’ll make it.” 

Rachel takes Noah from his capsule and lowers him onto the bed beside his Nana. A welcome distraction.

Mum looks around the dimly-lit room. She squints. “Where’s Jarrod?”

“In Sydney on business.”

“Did you have a good flight?”

“I drove.”

“Rachel! On your own. With a baby. What was Jarrod thinking, letting you do that?”

“He doesn’t know, Mum. I didn’t want to worry him.” A nurse brings a cup of tea and Rachel settles into an armchair beside the bed. Soon she will sleep. She’ll ring Jarrod in the morning.